Five women who left their mark on Saint-Louis
Generations of women have shaped the history of Saint-Louis, from union activists to entrepreneurs.
But you won’t find many of their names in history books — and for historians, it can be difficult to piece together their stories, said Katie Moon, exhibits manager at the Missouri History Museum.
“Often, if the women were married, their names just disappeared; they became Mrs. Charles Smith,” she said. “Often with women’s history, we assume that before 1900, every woman was a housewife and mother and no one really worked. That’s just a lie. They work, multitask and have been raising children since day one.
Moon is the author of “Groundbreakers, Rule-Breakers & Rebels: 50 Unstoppable St. Louis Women” and curator of “Beyond the Ballot,” an ongoing exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that traces the history of the women’s suffrage movement. women in St. Louis.
Shahla Farzan of St. Louis Public Radio sat down with Moon, who described five notable women and the roles they played in St. Louis history.
Mary Meachum (c. 1801–1869)
Shahla Farzan: One St. Louis woman who had a fascinating life was Mary Meacham. Why did she become famous?
Katie Moon: She was born a slave, and it was her husband, John Barry Meacham, who founded the first African-American Baptist Church in St. Louis in the 1820s, who bought her freedom when they married.
He and she were truly committed to the education of African Americans. At that time, Missouri actually banned anyone from teaching black people to read or write, so the Meachums opened – and it’s an urban legend – a steamboat school. Missouri was a slave state and Illinois was free, so the Mississippi River was that neutral zone. If someone came after them, they could head over to the Illinois side and get away with it.
The next record we have of her is from the mid-1850s. She was actually active with the Underground Railroad in the St. Louis area. We actually have a place on the Mississippi River called Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing. She was helping slaves cross the river to freedom, and we know that because she was arrested. At this point, she was not a young woman, but she was pursuing this work because she was so focused on it.
Mary Hancock McLean (1861-1930)
Farzan: Dr. Mary Hancock McLean was a pioneer in medicine at a time when women were not encouraged to become doctors. How did she get into this field?
Moon: She studied to be a doctor and returned to Saint-Louis, where she was able to obtain a position as a medical assistant at the women’s hospital. It was built in the 1870s, as Social Evils Hospital, when prostitution was legalized — so a lot of venereal disease treatment, a lot of babies. So she got a job there as the only female doctor.
She was really focused on women’s medical care, so she and another doctor opened an evening clinic for working women on Washington Avenue. They were open at night and it was free. So these women who worked in factories 14 hours a day, didn’t see daylight, didn’t exercise, didn’t eat well, had probably never seen a doctor before. They opened this clinic where women could come for treatment, and it was quite revolutionary.
She submitted her name to join the St. Louis Medical Society, but submitted her candidacy as MH McLean. They didn’t realize she was a woman and let her in, so she was the only woman in the company for 15 years.
Annie Malone (1869–1957)
Farzan: We can’t talk about the influential women of Saint-Louis without mentioning Annie Malone, a very well-known entrepreneur. How did she become known in Saint-Louis?
Moon: It’s amazing how many of these stories started with women trying to find a way to support themselves despite their circumstances, and [Annie Malone] was one of those women. She started in Illinois and created this hair product, and it grew from there. She worked with other local African American women and went door to door. If you look through some of the old newspapers, you see advertisements everywhere for the products she created. She really had a mind for marketing and branding.
She was earning all that money and she decided to build what she eventually called Poro College in the Ville district. It took up a whole city block and was five or six stories high. It was her manufacturing plant and where she shipped everything. But it was also the center of the black community at that time and she created it specifically for that purpose. There was a cafeteria, there was a hotel, there was an auditorium. At that time, many entertainment venues and hotels in St. Louis were segregated, so if Josephine Baker came to St. Louis, she could perform, but she wouldn’t find a hotel. So that provided this place.
His empire kept expanding, not just in St. Louis, but all over the world. At one point, she employed over 75,000 women around the world. She is considered the nation’s first African-American woman millionaire, but she didn’t keep it to herself. She founded the Orphan Home, which is now the home of Annie Malone, and donated to historically black colleges across the country. She just had her hands in so many different things.
Fannie Sellin (1872-1919)
Farzan: She’s not necessarily a household name, but Fannie Sellins was a very influential labor organizer in her day. How did she go from worker to activist?
Moon: Fannie Sellins is one of those mysterious characters. She was born in New Orleans, married and moved to St. Louis. Her husband was a garment worker and he died, so she had to figure out what she was going to do. She had four children and ended up working in a garment factory. We know the unions were in place at the time and she was just that person who was ready to stand up and start fighting – not just for herself, but for the other women and men she worked with. .
We don’t have a newspaper [or] a step by step of how this
come. We just know that at one point she represented 400 workers to get them better wages and better hours and all sorts of different things. It wasn’t like she had someone she could look up to and say, “That’s who I want to emulate. It was really, “It has to happen and I’m going to figure out how it works.”
She was then recruited by the mining unions, so she ended up in West Virginia and then in Pennsylvania, where she was murdered during a particularly violent union strike. The story goes that she was trying to protect someone else and ended up in the middle of a fight. She wasn’t a shrinking daisy.
Caroline Poucet (1873-1947)
Farzan: One of Missouri’s first practicing attorneys, Caroline Thummel, has faced many uphill battles in her career. Can you tell me more about her?
Moon: She was one of Missouri’s first practicing lawyers and was truly dedicated to improving working conditions and challenging the status quo. She investigated the hospice of Saint-Louis; it has been around for so long and had issues at the time. She believed what the inmates told her rather than what the mayor and director said. She was actually able to go in and find evidence that the prisoners were beaten and overworked and was able to bring that to light.
She didn’t get much credit as a woman and had to really push her way through. The interesting part is that she was a member of the Federal Bar Association, but she was not a member of the Missouri Bar; they didn’t allow women. She actually started the Women’s Bar Association in Missouri, so she could try cases in federal court, but she wasn’t legally allowed to sit on the bar in Missouri.
One of the things that the newspaper paid a lot more attention to was the fact that she made this claim that women should be able to choose who they marry. His argument was that if women proposed to men, there would be far fewer divorces. It was outrageous, and she was decimated by the press. They didn’t really care that she was a lawyer doing all these amazing things. The fact that she said that women should be able to propose to men was what they were stuck on.
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan